Back in 2009, United Front Games wowed Sony E3 2009 Conference attendees with a demo of their upcoming title, ModNation Racers – a modern kart racer with extremely intuitive track creation tools. The demo was easily one of the most-talked about moments of the Sony presentation and, in summer of 2010, ModNation Racers finally released as a PS3 exclusive. Months later, that exclusivity would stretch to a handheld PSP version and both games received positive responses from critics and gamers alike (read our Modnation Racers review).
However, software sales were not as impressive as the concept (and creation tools) so, instead of a full-on ModNation sequel, Sony assisted the studio in creating a spiritual successor buffed by the well-known LittleBigPlanet universe. Is LittleBigPlanet Karting a satisfying evolution of ModNation Racers‘ gameplay that also meets the bar set by the LittleBigPlanet brand?
Not really, but that doesn’t mean LittleBigPlanet Karting isn’t still an enjoyable offering for fans of the kart racer subgenre. Instead of refining the formula established in ModNation, LBP Karting instead focuses its efforts on the same accessibility that made its platforming counterpart a standout Sony brand. Like LittleBigPlanet (1 and 2) accessible does not mean easy and there’s plenty of challenge available in LBP Karting with surprisingly tight controls and solid gameplay inventions. However, like most kart racing titles, United Front Games has prioritized goofy power-ups and chaotic on-track pandaemonium over skill-based performance – which will, no doubt, cause a massive amount of frustration for players who are easily angered by relentless/cheap AI and on-the-fly difficulty balancing through last-minute “rubber banding.”
It’s easy to see why ModNation has been superimposed with LittleBigPlanet features and visuals – given that Sackboy and Co. synchronicity will help raise awareness for the game and expand the featured brand. Unfortunately, fans of the platforming series will not find quite as many cross-game opportunities this round, as customized Sackpeople and Pods do not carry over (at least not at the time of the game’s launch). United Front has promised that purchased LittleBigPlanet DLC costumes will eventually be made available, with some exclusions, but the studio makes no mention and seems to have no intention of allowing for a complete port of prior customized content. It’s a missed opportunity that will frustrate some players but only because Media Molecule created such a rewarding precedent for cross-title compatibility in the first place.
Of course, like prior LittleBigPlanet titles, Karting puts a major focus on collecting costume items, stickers, and (this time) kart parts, so that players a) have the ability to customize their racer and b) assemble a robust archive of components for use in “Create” mode. There are hundreds of “Prize Bubbles” to collect and, again, in keeping with the LBP brand, items are awarded in staggered tiers (this time based on placing) at the completion of a race/side-challenge as well as strewn about each track.
Unfortunately, while prizes add replay value to the experience (especially as gamers race to improve performance), United Front’s attempt to incentivize the LBP ”exploration” experience on the track is counter-intuitive. On-track prize bubbles are often placed in areas that are not necessarily advantageous to actual racing and the fast-moving as well as frantic karting action will often cause careful collectors to miss an item – due to a cheap last-minute AI hit. Throughout LittleBigPlanet 1 and 2, in-level prize bubbles led to enjoyable puzzles to solve; however, in forcing the idea into LittleBigPlanet Karting, United Front has, instead, created a disconnect between karting and collection gameplay – meaning most players will eventually realize that, to win, they’ll need to ignore many of the prize bubbles. Later on, they can return to the track and ignore other racers while slowly making their way from one collectible to the next.
Despite responsive controls and competent kart physics, the cheap AI and a muddled reward system make it clear that designing a gameplay package in service of refined racing was not the studio’s primary goal. Story levels offer diverse locales but developer track design isn’t particularly inspired and, more than ever before the success of a LittleBigPlanet title will rest heavily on user-created content. Sadly, Karting also offers the least approachable creation suite in the series (even removing some smart ModNation create mode features) – meaning that players will have to work a bit harder in designing standout post-release tracks.
That said, there are a number of quality user tracks already available (including some fun Mario Kart 64-inspired creations) and, as the community grows (plus masters the creation tools), there should be no shortage of fun and unique racing experiences online. Still, don’t expect a robust leveling and unlock system: aside from the availability of online racing and user-created levels, Karting doesn’t bother with online community challenges or incentives – with only ranked leaderboards to illicit any further post-race competition.
Taking another cue from Nintendo’s cartoon racer franchise, Karting includes a deathmatch-like “Battle Mode.” On its own, the feature is a hollow arena fight – where players zoom around and blast each other with unlimited weapon pick ups. However, “Create” mode has upped the ante – as users have already designed some compelling (and twisted) gameplay variations and arenas for battle.
In spite of some underwhelming design choices and noticeable disconnects between the ModNation and LittleBigPlanet union, Karting is actually pretty easy to recommend for fans of the kart racing subgenre. All of the usual pitfalls are present (cheap AI, limited multiplayer modes, etc) which means the title will still frustrate gamers who don’t enjoy the frantic nature of karting and the package will easily be too thin for players that expect robust online competition and leveling systems. Nevertheless, between the solid control physics and a perpetual stream of user-created content, gamers who are familiar with the genre will find all the necessary tools to carve out plenty of enjoyable kart racing experiences – even if they rarely bother with misplaced prize bubbles and underwhelming story tracks.
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LittleBigPlanet Karting is out now – exclusively on the Sony PS3.